Until last week, I was terrified at the prospect of giving a reading. Recording a blog post for Woman’s Hour was one thing (I’m going to keep on mentioning that for ages, yes, because I’m still reeling from the shock of saying “ring sting” on air), reading from petite anglaise was another thing entirely.
A few months ago, I happened to be in London on the very day that a Society of Authors seminar on “Giving a Reading” was held. I decided to sign up – thinking it would be interesting to check out their offices and meet a few people, if nothing else – and found myself in a room filled with twenty or so other authors. Some had penned fiction, others memoirs, history books or film scripts. Their ages ranged from twenty-five to eighty. We were united, however, by our collective fear of public speaking.
That day the speaker gave us lots of very good advice. Instead of reading one long passage (which might send your audience to sleep), you can pick several short ones, she suggested. That way you can give people a taste of different types of writing: some description, some dialogue, some action. Several amuse-bouche appetisers instead of one large entrée: a good way to whet people’s appetites. She also pointed out that if there’s a word or phrase you cringe at when reading aloud, or a sentence which simply doesn’t work when read out of its context, you can cross it out. It’s your book. You can do whatever you like.
There followed an excruciating hour where each participant read a short passage aloud and the rest of the group gave some constructive criticism about what could be done to improve things. There were those who swayed from side to side, those who buried their heads in their books, never daring to glance up. Those who mumbled, and those who read at fifty miles an hour in voices flattened by nerves to an expressionless monotone. I made the mistake of choosing a highly emotional passage – the book’s prologue – and lost my voice halfway through, soldiering on to the end in a stage whisper. The stunned silence at the end of my reading I put down to the fact that it must have been quite unsettling for my audience to see me reading on the verge of tears.
So when I gave my first public reading at York library, ten days ago, I’d given quite a lot of thought to how to avoid repeating that disastrous performance. I was stomach-churningly nervous – my ravaged cuticles and peeling bottom lip bore witness – but, having spent most of that day running from photo session to interview to photo session to TV studio, before leaping onto a train (Leeds-York) just an hour before my reading was due to start, I didn’t have too much time to dwell on my fear, let alone practise my spiel. I arrived at the library with only twenty minutes to spare, and allowed the organiser to pour me a large glass of wine (Arrogant Frog – an inspired choice) in an attempt to calm my nerves.
Once everyone had filed in and taken a seat, I gave a brief introduction then read four short passages from the light-hearted opening chapters of the book, introducing my love affair with all things French, the character of Mr Frog and the birth of the blog. It went pretty well, I thought, even if I found it tricky to raise my eyes from my book (the sight of my grandma, beaming on the front row, was a little off-putting). I even managed to get a few laughs – the scene where I meet Mr Frog was a lot of fun to read – and the consensus seemed to be that it had gone rather well. Once the questions from the floor had been dispensed with, I took out my special signing pen and had fun writing little messages in people’s books.
I did however decline my first ever request to sign a pair of white buttocks.
If you happen to be in Paris next Thursday (March 20th) and can make it to WH Smiths on rue de Rivoli at 7.30 pm, you will be able to see me give a repeat performance.
To enable the organisers to make adequate provision of alcoholic beverages, I urge you to sign up by sending an RSVP email. The event is free, and if you have already got a copy of the book, you are welcome to bring it along. If you’d like to purchase a book on the night, WH Smiths have ordered in copies of the proper UK hardback version especially (instead of the oversized export paperback some of you may have seen in Paris), which is much much lovelier, in my opinion.
Once I’ve got the reading bit out of the way (it will be mercifully short, as there are in excess of 80 people signed up, and therefore there will be no room for chairs) I will be free to answer questions, scribble inanely in books, drink wine and mingle until about 9.30pm. If you can’t make it to the first part, feel free to pop along afterwards.
See you there?